As a racehorse, Cigar's a genius Winner: A champion thoroughbred, who'll try for a record 17th straight win tomorrow, raises questions about links between equine intelligence, talent.

August 09, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Bill Mott walked Cigar around the shedrow. At every opening, where fans with cameras crowded for a glimpse of the equine superstar, Cigar stopped, raised his head, perked his ears and looked his admirers in the eye.

The next day, in the Citation Challenge at Arlington International Racecourse near Chicago, Cigar won his 16th straight race, tying Citation's modern record for a horse based in North America. And Cigar did it in typical fashion: seemingly in control and aware of every circumstance.

Jerry Bailey, his jockey, said Cigar is gifted with unusual intelligence. Mott, his trainer, said Cigar can do just about everything but read.

Now, as the Maryland-bred superhorse attempts to surpass Citation's record in tomorrow's $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar in Southern California, one wonders just how smart Cigar is -- or horses in general, for that matter -- and what role, if any, intelligence plays in shaping a champion racehorse.

"I hate to be a spoilsport about this," said Stephen Budiansky, author of "The Nature of Horses," a book about horse intelligence and behavior to be published next year, "but in all the studies that have been done trying to isolate intelligence and learning in horses, they don't rate very high in the animal world -- about the same as tropical aquarium fish, to tell you the truth."

But Budiansky, a science journalist with the magazine U.S. News & World Report, said those studies probably are not a fair measure of horses' intelligence. The tests required horses to navigate mazes and recognize patterns, skills at which, not surprisingly, they performed poorly.

And not many tests have been done, Budiansky said. Until a couple of decades ago, all scientific research involving horses focused on physical aspects: how best to treat injuries, for instance.

"I'd have to say a horse is smart because it has a brain that keeps it from falling down," Budiansky said. "People laugh at that. But that's far from a trivial point."

Such a large animal running at such high speeds -- coordinating the motion of four legs, navigating turns and uneven terrain, even jumping fences -- presents a complicated cognitive problem.

"We don't necessarily think of that as intelligence," Budiansky says, "but it really is."

In that respect, Cigar is brilliant. In winning 16 races in a row -- at nine different racetracks, including one halfway around the world -- he has established himself as one of the greatest thoroughbreds of all time.

Born six years ago at Country Life Farm in Harford County, Cigar languished early in his career as a racer on grass. It wasn't until Mott shifted Cigar to dirt that he became invincible.

Mott, the 43-year-old son of a South Dakota veterinarian, said Cigar has always possessed superior talent and intellect. In fact, he says, smiling only slightly, Cigar sometimes seems smarter than his human handlers. They're the ones who took until late in Cigar's fourth year to figure out what was best for him.

"Cigar's very observant of everything that goes on around him," Mott said. "That's not to say that other horses aren't. But he just takes all the commotion and activity in stride; he seems to have a knack for not overreacting. He even seems to know that all the attention's intended for him or about him."

Consummate professional

Cigar's exercise rider, 30-year-old Gerard Guenther, who gallops the regal bay horse nearly every morning, said without hesitation: "Cigar is a very intelligent horse, by far the most intelligent horse I've ever been on."

Wearing a blue hat that read "Cigar 1996 World Champion," Guenther said Cigar is the consummate professional.

"He's not the type of horse to fool around," Guenther said. "He doesn't get out on the track, look around and say, 'Let's take the day off.' When he's out on the track, he's pretty much all business all the time."

But if the track is wet, Guenther said, Cigar, on his own, takes it easy, apparently sensing the greater threat of injury. If the lineup of horses walking the shedrow backs up, Guenther said, "Cigar stops before you even ask him to. He just stands there and waits for the traffic to clear.

"He knows what to do and when to do it. He knows how hard he has to work. When he breezed that seven-eighths of a mile like he did last week, he knows a race is coming up. Then this week he breezed five-eighths of a mile. Anytime he has a long work followed by a short work, that short work is a sharpening work. That indicates to him that a race is coming up real soon."

Although one would expect a horse who's raced many times to learn his pre-race routine, Guenther said many never do.

Nothing bothers him

"There're a lot of horses who do repetitions every day and never figure it out," he said. "They gallop on the track, and every day they're afraid of the same thing." It might be a tractor parked off to the side or a hill that slopes away from the track or traffic on a nearby highway.

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